It was amusing that Robin van Persie should choose to reveal the "little boy inside him" was screaming that he wanted to join Manchester United just as Sir Alex Ferguson was sitting alongside congratulating himself on signing a player of great maturity, though there is no disagreement about what the £23m capture from Arsenal can do for a team that lost out on the title last season on goal difference.
Ferguson will be impressed by Mancini's honesty, though he is not falling for the flattery. "He makes us favourites every week," the United manager said, and then adding: "The defeat in the derby at Old Trafford last season was one reason why we ended up losing the title on goal difference. That has never happened to us before, and I can assure you it won't happen again."
Ferguson believes that with Van Persie's experience and composure in front of goal United will not only score more, but find it easier to make their superiority count instead of growing frustrated when chances go begging. There were a few too many one-sided draws for the manager's liking last season, including three expensive ones in Europe that led to an early exit, though as with the league game against Everton that handed the title initiative back to City in late April, the defence was at least as much to blame as the forward players. United have strengthened their attack with a forward that Ferguson is now happy to reveal used to crop up as a problem in team talks every time they played Arsenal, though in attempting to make his selection for Monday's visit to Goodison, he is again hampered by injuries in defence. "We are already having a bit of a nightmare in that department," he said. "Phil Jones will be out for a month and Chris Smalling possibly for two." At least Nemanja Vidic is back to partner Rio Ferdinand in the centre, though with Johnny Evans not yet in full training United must hope the pair stand up to the test.
City have injury worries over Micah Richards and Gareth Barry for their first game, though Mancini is more concerned that the squad as a whole does not take newly promoted Southampton too lightly. At least United know what to expect at Everton, and will probably have Ferguson's angry words from last season's 4-4 draw at Old Trafford ringing in their ears as they attempt to make amends, but City at home are looking at a potential banana skin. "The first game is always difficult, and Southampton don't have anything to lose," he said. "It was the same last season when we played Swansea and didn't quite know what to expect. We might have won that game 4-0 in the end but we had trouble for 60 minutes. Swansea put in a strong performance."
Like Ferguson, Mancini feels Chelsea could come back stronger this season, their confidence boosted by their Champions League success and their squad already restyled as they prepare for life without Didier Drogba. "I don't think Chelsea have finished spending yet," Mancini said. "They could still buy other players and so might Arsenal, who will need to change after Van Persie. They have already brought in some good players as have Liverpool, who have changed their manager and might be better than last year. I think the title will be a fight between four or five teams."
Most title fights begin that way, though a Premier League season requires staying power, and beyond Christmas there are usually just a couple left slugging it out. This season most imagine that the last couple will be the same pair as last season, for the simple reason that despite Champions League involvement and squads big enough to make an impression in Europe, both City and United see the title as the overriding priority. Not a top-four finish, not even a run to the last four in Europe – pleasant as that would be – but another English title. City want it to prove they are not one-hit wonders, United want it to suggest just the opposite and to make sure normal service is resumed before Ferguson begins to think about retirement. Getting money out of the Glazers for Van Persie, in addition to breaking their self-imposed rule about only signing players under the age of 26, shows how serious United are about recovering their property.
"It will be harder for us this year," Mancini said, although he would say that, wouldn't he. He was saying that even before Van Persie was drawn to the north. "It might be as close as last season but I hope not," the City manager said. "Not the last few seconds this time, please. Maybe it is possible we can win the title one game before the end."
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image: © Paolo Camera